There's therapeutic value in it, and paid listeners spend the good part of their day in pursuit of the productive kvetch.
Meaning, if a patient can complain to a professional and get results, either feel better or resolve a problem, then it's probably good for that person to kvetch, and a therapist is doing a real service, just listening. It's what we do, among other things.
Even better is to orchestrate it so that the patient complains to someone in the family, builds an alliance there.
But forget about the therapeutic setting. Anybody with a friend or partner can complain just because it feels good. I suppose in certain religious circles this is frowned upon if it presents as gossip or involves casting of negative aspersions.
But let's not get all spiritual here. I'm pretty sure there are ways to complain to friends and lovers that are less gossipy or damaging than others. Talk to your local clergy-person if you have any religious questions about the right way to complain. Generally, you're allowed to do it in therapy to solve a problem, serve peace in relationships.
This comes up because a blogger wrote me to complain that he had blogged and let it all out, told a story that clearly felt good to tell. He disguised the people he wrote about as best he could, but worried that he had embarrassed someone.
He asked me, "Well, isn't the therapeutic value of getting it out of my system worth the slim possibility that I might have embarrassed someone, who, by the way, really injured me?"
It's not going to be therapeutic in the long run if you're already feeling guilty about it. Maybe pull the post.
That's how kvetch-ing comes up in the blogging world. (I can just feel collective guilt festering all over the blogging universe right now as you read this.)
In the therapeutic world and the world of friendship, marriage or partnership, one person's proclivity to stuff it, as opposed to complain to, communicate with another, can be a problem.** Some people really do need to work things out, perhaps talk out loud, feel heard to feel better. But they won't. Or can't. People don't all have the words, or the clarity, vision fogged over with fears of exposure or conflict.
For some of us, complaining as children just wasn't allowed. Only the parents had the right to complain. So we learned not to. For other people, complaining feels horrible, like being exposed, raw, so out there, so vulnerable to criticism, rejection, and abandonment.
And then there are those of us who don't see that it will make any difference, complaining, don't think it will help, who can see kvetch-ing doing more harm than good, risking intimacy that will ultimately be lost, potentially create conflict, hurt feelings.
The emphasis on this blog, regarding communication, has always been
(a) You don't take away an umbrella until it stops raining.
In other words, if that's a person's psychological defense, not talking, you don't take it away. You don't make someone talk, you can't make someone talk, until that person feels safe in the relationship. Then it will be a natural thing, talking. Maybe. With a little work here.
(b) You want it to stop raining because intimacy, not distance, is valued in a relationship.
To me, one of the advantages of a committed relationship is that it lends itself to intimacy. Same bag of bones every night. You know each other's stressors, you know each other's outlets. You know if it's icecream or beer, and encourage watermelon. You encourage one another to share, because at the end of the day, only the two of you are living under that same roof, only the two of you can solve your problems. And if you have children, it is the two of you who will be accountable for their upbringing.
And the sharing feels good when you aren't punished for what you have said, rather have been rewarded with understanding. That feels very good, especially if it is a safe bet.
So we can talk all we want to our friends, complain all we want on the Internet, but if we have a significant other, the real juice is the emotional intimacy of complaining to him, to her. It's painful to listen to it, that's for sure, so often. We're tempted to feel we have to fix it, and sometimes we can, sometimes we can't. Problem solving, in relationships, is a different type of intimacy, requires different skills.
But listening is really the first order of business, the first course of intimacy, served up exclusively with a helping of words from someone else, words that fall, until further notice, on silence.
You notice, you really do, if someone isn't sharing with you, if a person is holding back, has things to say and isn't saying them. If you're sensitive, you can tell you're the only one who has been talking lately.
And for people like me, who don't like to let it all out, who would much rather read newspaper headlines aloud to bide the time, or tell Jewish jokes, or ask what's new in the community, the treatment is really less complicated than it looks. You tell people like us,
Just give me a little. Throw me a crumb. I won't ask questions, and I won't try to fix it. Just a couple of words, will do. Let me in. What's going on in there?If you're lucky, and if you really refrain from trying to fix it or asking questions, it's likely you'll get some results.
Then maybe, if you're lucky, you'll feel you know this person. You can stop complaining about the lack of emotional intimacy.
* A kvetch is someone who complains all the time, but we use it as a verb, as in, lemme kvetch.
**This is where some of us have what is called interface, and have to talk to our therapists or push our finger nails into our palms to keep ourselves from saying something egregiously idiotic like, "ME TOO! I CAN'T COMPLAIN, EITHER!"